I was born in Vung Tau, Vietnam to a woman whose partner of six years left her when he learned that she was pregnant. My mother wanted desperately to keep and raise me herself, but after taking me out of an orphanage twice, she realized that I would starve if she didn’t leave me in their care. She began working at the orphanage so she could spend more time with me. However, she ultimately knew that she was giving me away to another family.
I was one of the lucky ones in my orphanage — a loving American family adopted me and raised me in Lubbock, Texas. I ended up here at Texas A&M because my mother made the painful sacrifice to let me go in hopes that I would have a better life somewhere else. The others remained, clinging to the belief that they would one day have a home to provide them with love and care. The same kids in America are the ones who see and feel foster care’s shortcomings.
The sad reality is that since 2017, about 440,000 youth in the U.S. have faced similar circumstances in the foster care system. That’s an 11.6 percent increase from 2012, and much of it results from the opioid epidemic. Fortunately, 49 percent of children exit foster care with their parents, and 24 percent and 17 percent are adopted or live with relatives or family friends, respectively. Still, about 10 percent of youth will age out, transfer to another organization, run away or die.
Now, you may be thinking, “10 percent isn’t a large number of kids, right?” And to be fair, the 10 percent of kids (eight percent who age out and two percent in the “other” category) aren’t a majority or even a plurality of kids in the foster care system. However, there are still about 23,000 kids who age out of the system each year, and their prospects are bleak. Of the youth that age out, only three percent will graduate from college. Additionally, 25 percent will not receive a high school diploma or GED, and half of them develop substance dependencies.
Fortunately, the federal government passed a law in 2018 — the Family First Prevention Services Act — meant to overhaul the foster care system. The bill primarily focused on preventing new entries into the system by providing substance abuse treatment, parenting classes and mental health services for 12 months. The philosophy is that children tend to fare best with their parents, and the government wants to try and keep families together.
This policy is on the right track, but there are two main shortcomings. First, many critics have argued that 12 months is not long enough, and I agree. The second issue I see with the new law is in cases of child abuse. In cases where children are abused, the state should remove them from a toxic environment.
The Family First Prevention Services Act also changes rules regarding congregate care like group homes and institutions. I find most of my problems with the new policy in regards to congregate care. The new policy caps the amount of time a child can stay in congregate care unless they are there for medical purposes. Firstly, many states are seeing a decline in the number of foster parents, meaning group homes are sometimes an absolute necessity. Federal policy should not punish those states for not having other places to house children. And I may be biased, but I was in congregate care in Vietnam because my family did not have the means to take care of me, and neither did many other families. If I wasn’t in the orphanage, I would be dead. Instead of looking at group homes as the worst place for a child to go, we should reframe the conversation to find a way to make them more nurturing and conducive to a child’s development.
This last winter break, I returned to Vietnam for the first time since I was born and met my birth mother. To say that the moment was emotional for us would be an understatement – it was like I found a part of myself that had been missing for years. She brought me back to the orphanage where I stayed for four months, and my dad told me it had changed significantly in the last 19 years. What had not changed was the number of kids that were still there, most of them younger than 10 years old.
During the three times I ate lunch with my mother, the way that she kept piling food in my bowl, stirring sugar in my ridiculously bitter coffee and how tightly she held my hand made me realize that she was trying to make up for the 19 years she didn’t get to take care of me. I am grateful beyond words that I was finally reunited with her and that I found my blood family, but I am more thankful that I got the opportunity to forge my own life in the U.S. Now, it’s time that we do the same for the youth inside our borders.